Carleton UniversityCarleton University Magazine
Spring 2005 -- click to return to ContentsCover story
Global warning?
Controversy heats up in the scientific community

By Cindy Robinson

Nancy Doubleday, associate chair of Carleton’s Department of Geography and Environmental Studies, believes global warming may be attributed to human activity. Nancy Doubleday, associate chair of Carleton’s Department of Geography and Environmental Studies, believes global warming may be attributed to human activity.
Greenhouse gases. The Kyoto Protocol. Global warming.

Eight years ago, these words were somewhat foreign to the average Canadian. Now it’s difficult to open a newspaper or magazine without reading about the dramatic effects that rising global temperatures may have on the environment. Especially since the Kyoto Protocol, an international agreement established in 1997 to ostensibly curb the greenhouse gas emissions of industrialized countries and reduce global warming, came into effect on February 16, 2005.

Though Canada and 140 other nations are signatories of Kyoto, there is a heated debate raging behind the scenes about the scientific evidence that is said to support the Protocol. Kyoto advocates claim that carbon dioxide emissions created by human activity — driving cars, incinerating solid and industrial waste, burning fossil fuels to generate electricity, heat our homes and run our factories — is prompting temperatures to rise at a rapid and potentially devastating rate. On the other hand, Kyoto opponents argue that global temperatures naturally rise and fall, and humans have virtually no impact on the global climate.

Despite their differences in opinion, both groups of scientists tend to agree: A general warming effect is happening. The question is, why can’t these two camps agree on the cause?

Climate culprit?

Greenhouse gas (GHG) is the oft-cited culprit behind fluctuations in the Earth’s climate. The most significant GHG is naturally occurring water vapour. While such compounds as carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide are found in nature, human activities also create emissions of these gases. All GHGs trap heat in the Earth’s atmosphere, causing the planet to be warmer than it otherwise would be.

smart car The Canadian government contends that road transportation is responsible for about 20 percent of GHG emissions in Canada. The federal Ministry of Transportation has purchased the fuel-efficient Smart car, pictured above, to demonstrate how consumers can reduce carbon dioxide emissions. (Photo: Trevor Lush)
Nancy Doubleday, associate chair of Carleton’s Department of Geography and Environmental Studies, believes this warming phenomenon may be attributed to human activity and the rise of industrialization.

“Quite clearly, there is an observed increase in global temperature by about one degree, and there are some who will say that’s well within what the Earth has historically done in terms of variability. However, one of the things that is very different about this period in history is the role of human beings. Our control of combustion has allowed us to transform the Earth, and rates of combustion are far greater than before,” she says.

If nothing is done to reduce GHG emissions, we could witness a rise in sea levels and extreme weather patterns, Kyoto advocates say. Certain species of wildlife and their natural habitats could also suffer the negative impacts of a warmer planet, notes Doubleday.

“What comes with global warming is a real set of concerns. It will mean that cold-adapted species will come out of hibernation too soon. There will be a disruption of the food chain, trees may be more likely to lose their reproductive parts and there could be the introduction of more parasites that infect birds and insects,” says Doubleday, who specializes in environmental research in the Arctic region.

Derek Stack, BSc/98, agrees that climate change is “globally significant” and can have a “huge impact” on the environment. The executive director of Great Lakes United, an environmental lobby group dedicated to preserving and restoring the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River eco-system, Stack says the emergence of insects never before seen in the North is a direct result of global warming caused by human activity.

“The impacts on the system have already begun. The personal impacts will last a lifetime.”

Heated debate

Kyoto proponents say that the evidence used to back the Protocol can be found in the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). According to the IPCC, the global surface temperature has risen by approximately 0.6 degrees Celsius since 1900, and temperatures in the Arctic are higher now than at anytime since the 1940s.

The summary report for the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment issued by the Arctic Council, which includes Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden and the U.S. as member nations, also concludes that Arctic-wide temperatures have risen nearly one degree Celsius since 1900.

So why is there an issue with these findings?

Professor Tim Patterson Professor Tim Patterson
Professor Tim Patterson, a paleoclimatologist in Carleton’s Department of Earth Sciences, says the science used to establish the Kyoto Protocol is flawed. Patterson, who studies evidence in ocean and lake sediments to decipher how climate has varied over the past two million years, claims that the warming effect scientists are observing is mostly natural.

“In the eight years since the Kyoto Protocol was first introduced, there has been a revolution in climate change science. What we have learned is that many of the scientific assumptions underlying Kyoto are false. Climate is not naturally constant and global warming is not evidence of human interference,” he insists. “Climate change, including global warming and cooling, is perfectly normal.”

Patterson contends that the sun is the reason why the 20th century has experienced some of the hottest temperatures in recent history.

“My own research shows that, on all time scales, there is a very good correlation between the Earth’s temperature and natural celestial phenomena, such as changes in the brightness of the sun. The fact that the sun is now brighter than it has been in 8,000 years should have a major impact on climate.”

Patterson is not alone in his claims. In fact, a large number of scientists from around the world agree that anthropogenic (human) activity is not the cause of global warming. A petition established by The Science and Environmental Policy Project, based in the U.S., includes 15,000 signatures from scientists and academics expressing scepticism about the science underlying Kyoto.

Fred Michel, an associate professor in earth sciences and director of Carleton’s environmental sciences program, along with a number of climate science colleagues, presented the opinion that “Kyoto is unsubstantiated scientifically” at a news conference in 2002.

“We showed that climate change is a natural occurrence and would continue unabated even if all human activity on the planet ceased immediately. The influence that anthropogenic carbon dioxide has on global climate is simply miniscule.”

Tad Murty, an expert in meteorology and physical oceanography, who is an adjunct professor in the Department of Earth Sciences, states his views more strongly.

“This is the biggest scientific hoax being perpetrated on humanity. There is no global warming due to human anthropogenic activities. The atmosphere hasn’t changed much in 280 million years, and there have always been cycles of warming and cooling. The Cretaceous period was the warmest on earth. You could have grown tomatoes at the North Pole,” he says.

But Kyoto advocates say they have further evidence to support their claims. For example, should levels of carbon dioxide double in the North, some climate models predict an alarming increase in temperatures.

“The projections are that we will have warming by as much as 10 degrees Celsius in some areas of the polar region,” says Doubleday. If the models hold true, she says wildlife in the North may be moved to the brink of extinction, and the traditional native way of life, which involves hunting and fishing, could be threatened.

In response, Patterson and Murty say climate models are unpredictable.

“A climate model will do anything you want it to do,” says Patterson. “Climate is very complex, comprised of a myraid of variables — many of which we still do not understand. It is impossible to make accurate projections of the future with the toy global climate models currently available. And the big problem with climate models today is that they can’t even recreate climates of the past without a lot of tweaking.”

Murty agrees, questioning why the weather catastrophes that some climate models predict, such as major storms, floods and droughts, haven’t been as common in this century versus the last.

“There are no records being shattered in terms of weather catastrophes,” he says. “The number of hurricanes in the Bay of Bengal in the 20th century is slightly less than the number in the 19th century, and for the Gulf of Mexico the number is also less. If global warming is increasing the frequency of hurricanes, we should see more hurricanes each year than the previous year, which is certainly not the case. If global warming is supposed to cause these severe weather changes, where is the evidence?”

Climate catastrophe?

Both Patterson and Doubleday agree that there is no imminent warming catastrophe.

“There will be no flash freeze in Manhattan,” says Doubleday in reference to the Hollywood film The Day After Tomorrow in which the upper half of the Northern hemisphere is suddenly converted into an uninhabitable polar wasteland.

In fact, Patterson, who recently participated in a documentary called Climate Catastrophe Cancelled that seeks to dispel global warming myths, says that GHGs are actually good for the environment.

“Greenhouse gases are natural and have been an integral part of the biosphere since life appeared on the planet,” he says. “The earth’s temperature would be –18 degrees Celsius if we got rid of greenhouse gases.”

So, what is the answer? And what should people believe?

Patterson says the $10 billion Canada plans to spend on Kyoto would be better spent in underprivileged countries.

In a letter to The Toronto Star published last year, Michel calls the government’s Kyoto plan a “massive misallocation of taxpayer funds.” “Let’s focus our attention and tax dollars on real issues,” he concludes.

Stack and Great Lakes United feel that certain government initiatives related to Kyoto will promote a general awareness about wasteful energy use. As an example, he cites the federal government’s One Tonne Challenge, which is designed to encourage Canadians to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by one tonne, as a useful educational tool that can promote environmentally friendly behaviour.

Regardless of what people think about Kyoto, an opportunity exists to make changes that will positively impact the planet, says Doubleday.

“This is a wake up call. The question is ‘can we respond and change the way we interact with the environment?’”

At least one thing is certain. With no apparent agreement on the causes of global warming in sight, this hot debate will continue to polarize the scientific community.


Fast fact...

Canada will spend $10 billion in the next eight years in an effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Canada’s target is to reduce its average annual GHG emissions to six percent below 1990 levels in the 2008-2012 time frame.

Canada’s major chemical and electricity industries are large emitters of GHGs, responsible for 50 percent of the country’s global emissions. Canada’s Kyoto targets specify that these large emitters are responsible for reducing only 36 percent of the country’s emissions. The remaining 64 percent of reductions are the responsibility of individual Canadians.

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